Monday, 8 September 2014

What lies beyond?

Freeman Tilden
When reading Elaine Heumann Gurian´s “Civilizing the Museum”, a bit more than a year ago, I remember having one thought and two feelings. I thought how it was possible to have come for the first time across her writings and visionary thinking about museums so late, after studying and working in the field for almost 20 years. I had a warm feeling of comfort, realizing that ideas and concerns constantly on my mind were not exactly new and that someone like Elaine had expressed them so beautifully and thoroughly before, influencing a number of people and institutions she worked for. But I also had a bitter feeling of frustration, realizing how slow really change is, since things Elaine has pointed out some time ago and worked for are still an issue today.

When I finished Freeman Tilden´s “Interpreting Our Heritage” last month, I smiled. I had the same one thought and two feelings. How is it possible to only read Tilden now?! How inspiring his writing, how clear everything becomes when one goes through his six principles of interpretation and numerous examples. And how disappointing to see that, more than half a century later, we´ve learnt little and practiced even less.

Tilden wrote the book in 1957, when he was 74 years old and after a long career as journalist, novelist and playwright. As Russell E. Dickenson points out in the forward of the fourth edition, “In his association with parks, Tilden developed an interest in how the national parks shaped American identity as well as individual identity, urging citizens to derive meaning and inspiration for and from precious natural and historical resources.”

This is what Tilden wished for citizens and this is where his expectations of interpretation and interpreters lied. “Interpreters decide what stories to tell, how to tell them and who to tell them to, a serious responsibility [p.2]; (...) The visitor´s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experiences and his ideals [p.36]; (...) But the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizons of interest and knowledge and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact [p. 59]; (...) Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things -  those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor. Not yet by sermonizing; nor yet by lecturing; not by instruction but by provocation [p. 67]; (...) to put your visitor in possession of at least one disturbing idea that may grow into a fruitful interest [p. 128]”.

His vision thus summarised, here are Tilden´s six principles of interpretation:

1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.

3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

4. The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

When reading this, I did, of course, think of museums; of the richness that lies within them which is inaccessible to so many. In many cases, by choice: the choice of those who have the great responsibility of interpreting, of revealing, of provoking, of touching most peoples souls and not just the brains of a few, but, although having the power to decide, their main concern is to communicate with and be acknoweldged by their peers. This is one reason, in my opinion, the most important, the most determinant. Another reason is that, in this context, professionals who have technical preparation in this field struggle to be heard and, all too often, lose the battle. Another reason still is that many other people working in this field haven´t got technical preparation for what they are asked to do, and they are not given any either. I remember once at a training course, during a heated discussion regarding the resonsibilities of museum people working for themselves and their peers, one lady raised her hand and said: “Please, don´t say that we are only worried about ourselves and our peers. I just don´t know how to do things differently, and this is why I am here”....

It is the combination of these factors that makes Heumann Gurian, Tilden, Cotton Dana (to mention another favourite of mine) sound bitterly relevant and contemporary, more than 20 or 50 or 100 years later.

It happens that I finished Tilden´s book and started writing these lines in the middle of a national park, that of Tzoumerka in Greece. The beauty of the scenery was breathtaking. I kept thinking of his words: “Interpretation takes the visitor beyond the point of his aesthetic joy, toward a realization of the material forces that have joined to produce the beauty around him.” And this is what the people I met did for me. They took me - with simplicity, enthusiasm, and a profound knowledge of things - beyond, much beyond what was visible to me. They were not all professionals, but they were people with a love for that place, wishing to share it. And they made my whole experience even greater.

Still on this blog

Curiosity killed the visitor

Plaka Bridge, National Park of Tzoumerka, Greece

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